The political weather is heating up. How do I know? Hits on this blog are at a recent high, with 400 yesterday. (For obvious reasons, they tend to peak over the weekend and on Monday and decline somewhat for the rest of the week.) But over 200 of those were directed from snopes.com and another web site exposing the fraudulent email under my name comparing Obama to Hitler. In addition, while I have been away two citizens have left voice mail messages on my home phone wanting to discuss that email. A new rise in traffic began during the debt ceiling crisis, and now it is higher still. I'm used to this, but it remains an interesting indicator of where the country is.
Two world views are at war. The first, represented rather weakly by President Obama, represents what is left of the governmental and economic structure which the Missionary (b. 1863-1883) and GI (about 1904-24) generations built up during the first half of the twentieth century. That system was a child of the Enlightenment and believed that reason, science, and research could help government improve society, and it gave us public education at all levels, city planning, strong labor unions, interstate highways, some mass transit, regulated banking and securities markets, and federal responsibility for the economy. The second world view has always been with us in some form but it entered a new phase in reaction to the triumph of the first world view in the early 1960s, and also in reaction to the civil rights movement. It professes what amounts to Social Darwinism and believes in unregulated markets of all kinds, from securities to labor, low if any taxes, and, now, religious values as the basis for our society. While it may not represent a majority, it certainly commands a majority of the enthusiasm in the country today. That is what the circulating email and the phone calls I receive show. None of my actual posts on this forum has ever gone viral, and I don't think a single stranger has ever called me to thank me for something that I have actually said. I'm not complaining, especially about no. 2, but this tells us what we need to know about the passion abroad in this country.
The Democratic Party remains a collection of interests representing an ideology which it has essentially been ashamed of, publicly at least, since Walter Mondale. The Republican Party, while it will have trouble picking a candidate, maintains an ideological discipline that would be the envy of the Communist Party of the USSR. In Thursday night's Iowa debate, any candidate who had ever done anything reasonable-- voted for a desperately needed tax increase, cooperated with Democrats, passed a health care law, or endorsed civil unions--was given an opportunity to confess, recant, and write a letter of self-criticism, and almost without exception, they did so. The determination of the Republicans has allowed them to force the debt ceiling crisis, the downgrade, and the roller coaster swing of the stock market this past week--all of which will work to the disadvantage of President Obama.
The stock market developments suggest that another crash could happen at almost any moment. We should not be surprised. It astonishes me to think that I lived the first forty years of my life--1947-87--without experiencing a single stock market panic. (The 1970s did, of course, see a long, gradual decline, but that was a very different kind of experience.) Since then we have had the S & L bust, the dot com bubble, and the housing bubble, and the story is not over yet. This is very similar to the aftermath of the Civil War. Then, too, the country was awash in money--civil war greenbacks, instead of unlimited loans from the federal reserve, today--and markets were unregulated. The system was ripe for abuse, and abuse happened.
The political market also shows many similarities. The wounds opened by the Civil War never really healed. The South took a huge step towards genuinely joining the rest of the nation under the New Deal, which won the hearts of poorer southerners of both races, but that process was reversed in much of the South in the 1950s and 1960s. The Republican Party emerged from the Civil War in a precarious state, and that was a major reason why it insisted on enfranchising the freedmen. After they began to lose the vote in the South, the two parties were more equal in strength than at any time in our history. 1876 was the first of five consecutive Presidential elections whose outcome could have been changed by the shifting of one state. The Congress also swung back and forth, violently. I still need to learn a lot more about that era, but I suspect the reason was that while millions of Americans were deeply dissatisfied with the state of the country, the political system was too corrupt to respond to their concerns. Sound familiar?
Beginning in 9/11, the Bush Administration managed to channel enormous energy into enterprises of dubious utility into the Middle East. They also managed to cripple the federal budget for the foreseeable future. The Obama Administration's failure to reverse any of these trends suggests, sadly, that under George W. Bush--whose entrance into the White House was extremely fortuitous--the Republicans won the decisive battles of the current civil war. To be sure, they provoked an electoral reaction in so doing in 2006 and 2008, but the recovered a lot of lost ground last year. Whether or not they can regain the White House, they are obviously more than sufficiently powerful now to prevent any fundamental change of national direction for some time. To take one very important example, as Paul Krugman pointed out yesterday, the Republicans have successfully moved the national debate from jobs to deficits, guaranteeing that unemployment will remain high. To take another, the Republicans may have packed the Supreme Court to the extent necessary for it to overturn the new health care law. I am inclined to believe that Anthony Kennedy will not, in fact, provide the fifth vote for that momentous decision, but I am not sure.
The period from 1868 to 1901 did not bring any candidates for Mt. Rushmore to the White House, and its only lasting legislative contribution--the Sherman Anti-trust Act--was passed more or less by accident. We can survive another such period. Alas, the generational rhythm of human life, clearly, does not allow for uninterrupted progress.